In 2012, Somm, a documentary following four individuals’ attempts to pass the notoriously difficult master sommelier exam, was an illuminating glimpse into the rarefied world of the sommelier; professionals with gilt-edge expertise of wine and its pairing with food. It was a world dominated by white men. Now, more than 10 years later, the profession is layered with individuals of different hues and backgrounds. And Black sommeliers such as Tonya Pitts, wine director of One Market restaurant in San Francisco, and Larissa Dubose, director of beverages at US retailer Paradies Lagardère, are among those leading the change.
A scroll through Wine Enthusiast magazine’s Future 40 Tastemakers and Innovators of 2022 shows promise, those profiled representing a range of races, gender expressions and ages. It is a refreshing dynamic, but still in its infancy. According to online recruitment service Zippia, 68% of sommeliers are male and just 11% are Black. Dubose attributes the historical lack of diversity to a host of geographic, financial and social factors. “Think about the origins of wine,” she explains. “It dates back to before the time of the Romans, if not before then, and many of the indigenous grape varieties we enjoy today originated in France, Italy and Spain.” Dubose notes that she, like other young Black American women, had limited experience of wine growing up. “If wine exposure happened in our community, it was likely boxed and called Riunite,” she says with a chuckle. Thus, her path into the profession 13 years ago was circuitous. She started as a pharmaceutical sales rep before transitioning to bartending and then wine distribution, eventually becoming a certified sommelier.
Being a fine wine connoisseur, explains Dubose, “is a hobby that demands time and money. Black Americans have an estimated $1.6 trillion spending power, so we have the money, but we haven’t always had access.” Pitts, named Wine Enthusiast’s 2022 Wine Sommelier Of The Year, adds, “initially sommelier certifications were a European thing, not an American pursuit,” which likely also contributed to the lack of diversity in the profession. While both women agree one doesn’t need to have the certifications to be a sommelier – time on the job can help develop the necessary skill set – it helps. “Having the certifications allows Black women and other BIPOC individuals to walk through the door and position themselves for opportunities,” explains Dubose.
To increase diversity, both Pitts and Dubose say mentorship is key. Julia Coney, something of a legend in the Black female sommelier world, mentored Dubose when she was starting out. Coney is known for her open letter to wine writer Karen MacNeil which depicted how difficult it was to be not only a female sommelier, but a Black female sommelier. “Now I make it a point to never walk into a room without also bringing along another young, Black professional with me,” says Dubose.
Pitts says this ethos is essential for change. “When I started out 30 years ago, you wouldn’t see Black females or any people of colour on the restaurant floor. BIPOC individuals were always in the back, bussing tables, cooking food or washing dishes.” Hence Pitts is dedicated to educating individuals – regardless of race, age or gender – interested in the sommelier profession and those who simply want to learn more about wine. Both women actively support Coney’s Black Wine Professionals, a talent resource for Black professional sommeliers where Dubose serves as the director of education. Dubose also runs The Lotus & The Vines, a platform created to redefine wine culture by increasing accessibility; while Pitts has a private wine pairing and blending service to help nurture the next generation of wine professionals.
Yet there are still milestones to be reached. “To date there is no Black, female master sommelier, though several are close to achieving it,” says Dubose. “The wine industry is a ship, and it will take time to turn it – but it is turning.”
5 Black Female Sommeliers To Follow: